The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, October 14, 2020


O sweet spontaneous
by e e cummings

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
the
doting

fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched
and

poked
thee
, has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
thy

beauty how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
gods
(but
true

to the incomparable
couch of death thy
rhythmic
lover

thou answerest

them only with

spring)

 

“O Sweet Spontaneous” by e e cummings. Public Domain. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of the 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower born in Denison, Texas (1890). He grew up in a poor family that was very religious. His mother was a pacifist. When her son chose to go to West Point for college, she broke down in tears. He took a position training soldiers after he graduated in 1915. He wanted to go overseas to fight in World War I, but it ended a week before he was supposed to go over to Europe. He wrote a guidebook of World War I battlefields, and then was stationed in the Philippines.

He finally got back to the United States in 1939, and he was stationed at a based in Louisiana where he supervised the largest military games ever carried out in this country, a simulation designed to help prepare for a land war in Europe. Eisenhower planned the strategy for the invading army, and the following December, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was put in charge of the strategy for an Allied invasion of Europe.


It’s the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, in which William Duke of Normandy came across the channel from France and defeated the army of Harold II of England. The Normans became the rulers of England, and French was introduced into the English language. William had an army of about 7,000 cavalry and infantry. Harold had about as many men, but many of them untrained peasants. It was a close battle until William Duke of Normandy pretended to retreat and drew the Englishmen out of their position in pursuit and then turned and annihilated them.


It’s the birthday of the short-story writer Katherine Mansfield (books by this author), born in Wellington, New Zealand (1888). She was the daughter of a successful businessman who sent her away to school in England. At 18, her parents brought her back to New Zealand, and she found that she no longer had anything in common with her family.

She became one of the wildest bohemians in New Zealand. She had affairs with men and women, lived with Aborigines, and published scandalous stories. She moved back to London and lived in the bohemian scene there. At one point, she married a man she barely knew and left him before the wedding night was over because she couldn’t stand the pink bedspread.

She didn’t begin to write the stories that made her famous until her younger brother came to see her in 1915. They had long talks, reminiscing about growing up in New Zealand. He left that fall for World War I and was killed two months later. She was devastated by his death, and she wrote a series of short stories about her childhood, including “The Garden Party,” which many critics consider to be her masterpiece.

She said, “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare fiddle?”


It’s the birthday of American poet and playwright e e cummings (1894) (books by this author), born Edward Estlin Cummings in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a professor of sociology and political science at Harvard University, and cummings grew up around intellectuals, including philosopher Williams James, who encouraged him to write from an early age. cummings’ family was Unitarian and he considered himself a pacifist, though he enlisted in World War I and was sent to France (1917) to serve in the ambulance corps with his good friend, novelist John Dos Passos.

cummings’s letters home were vociferously anti-war and he was imprisoned in Orne, Normandy, for almost four months on suspicion of treason. He was kept in one large room with 30 other prisoners, an experience he later fictionalized in his novel The Enormous Room (1922). His father received a letter telling him his son was lost at sea and was so distraught he began writing letters to officials. When he received no answer, he wrote directly to President Wilson, who was able to locate cummings. cummings was very close to his parents. His poem “my father moved through dooms of love” was written after his parents were involved in car accident with a locomotive. cummings’s father was killed instantly, his body cut in half.

cummings’s poems were short and playfully innovative in structure. He favored concise sentences, lowercase letters, unusual typography, and acrostics. He liked to invent compound words like “puddle-wonderful” and “mud-luscious.” No one quite knew what to make of his work when his first collection, Tulips and Chimneys, was published in 1923. Literary critic Helen Vendler found Cummings’ poetry exasperating. She said, “What is wrong with a man who writes like this?”

For more than 40 years and three marriages, e e cummings lived in the same apartment at #4 Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, New York City. He traveled often to Paris. He had friends like Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and John Cheever. He wore Harris Tweed and a collapsible top hat. His Aunt Jane took most of what little money he had and sent him a carton of Melba toast in return. He survived giving lectures at colleges and high schools. He said, “If poetry is your goal, you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities.”

Most of his poetry collections were self-published until the late 1940s, when the burgeoning counterculture suddenly discovered him, and his poetry became quite popular, especially poems like “i carry your heart with me” and “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond,” which contains his most famous line, “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” At the time of his death in 1962, he was the second most popular poet in America, behind Robert Frost.

e e cummings’s collections of poetry include Tulips and Chimneys (1923), & (1925), XLI Poems (1925), and XAIPE: Seventy-One Poems (1950).


Theodore Roosevelt was shot at a campaign stop on this date in 1912. Roosevelt had just gotten into a car outside a Milwaukee hotel when John Schrank, an unemployed saloonkeeper, shot him with a Colt revolver from a distance of five feet. Schrank — who believed he had been given orders by the ghost of President McKinley — had been stalking Roosevelt, and intended to stop him from pursuing a third term as president. It had been an ugly campaign so far, with deep division in the Republican Party. Roosevelt left the GOP and ran as a member of the National Progressive, or “Bull Moose,” Party.

The crowd tackled the shooter, but Roosevelt’s composure was not ruffled in the least. He asked Schrank why he’d done it, and turned the man over to the police when he received no answer. Roosevelt then coughed experimentally into his hand, and deduced that the bullet had not penetrated his lungs, because he didn’t cough up any blood. He insisted on proceeding to the Milwaukee Auditorium, where he delivered a 90-minute speech as scheduled.

He began by calling for quiet, and then told the stunned crowd: “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot — but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” He opened his coat to reveal his bloodstained shirt, and credited the 50-page speech in his breast pocket for saving his life. Roosevelt blamed the media for provoking the shooter: “It is a very natural thing,” he said, “that weak and vicious minds should be inflamed to acts of violence by the kind of awful mendacity and abuse that have been heaped upon me for the last three months by the papers.” He also predicted that such shootings would become more commonplace, should the government fail to care for the well-being of all its citizens.

In the end, Roosevelt came in second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. He received 27 percent of the vote, the most any third-party candidate has received in an American presidential election. Schrank’s bullet remained lodged in Roosevelt’s rib for the rest of his life.

 

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A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

Back in the sixth grade some boys campaigned for a dog to be class president. We were just discovering our sense of irony and wanted to exercise it. And then in 2016, it actually happened and there he was on the inaugural platform, a big woofer who didn’t know the NSA from the NIH from the end of a broom handle, and the Clintons and Obamas and Bidens were all shaking hands with the goofus and he was counting the crowd and wondering why he wasn’t getting a bigger cut of souvenir sales.

Now, as he tools around his golf course while red states are inundated with COVID patients and his lawyers litter the courts with motions to coronate him, we need to figure out how to defend the country against the next tyrant who is likely to be more competent than he. The problem is us Democrats: half of the voting public is repelled by us and no wonder. We lack discipline and we have no sense of humor. At a time of real suffering and meanness, we listen respectfully to people who feel that their personal identity is a political issue. Height-challenged people, for example, who feel overlooked. We put them on a pedestal. This strikes most people as odd.

Face it. The American people don’t enjoy democracy. Italians do, the French mostly do, and Danes are devoted to it. They have ten political parties in the Danish parliament, plus some independent members who couldn’t find any of the ten to agree with. The idea of a two-party system is abhorrent to Danes; to them, an election is an exercise of individuality.

Americans want a Moses. Trump is more psychosis than Moses but the next one is likely to be worse unless we unite behind Kamala and cancel the 2024 Democratic primaries.

Did you see Kamala and Pence on the split screen? It was the Homecoming Queen/Valedictorian versus the Lunchroom Monitor. America prefers a charming intelligent woman to an angry dullard, hands down. Let Joe do the hard stuff that makes you unpopular, and meanwhile Kamala’s approval ratings soar into the seventies. There are people who know how to accomplish this.

In three years, Snoozin’ Cruz and Two-Cents Pence and Rotten Cotton will be raging in Iowa and New Hampshire, doing eye pokes and carrying on urination contests, and the Democratic Party will be quiet, all of our fools staying in their rooms, our socialists socializing among themselves, the police defunders zipping their lips, there will be Kamala on the ballot, no communists, just a goddess of goodness and light supported by 100% of Democrats. Discipline.

Americans tend to be loose and so we admire discipline and that’s the appeal of authoritarianism. We Democrats need to learn from this. The woofer got elected because he knew nothing and was proud of his ignorance and never once admitted it: that is discipline. You and I have apologized hundreds of times. He, never.

Life can be hard. Deer hunting season is here, which is also the mating season for deer, a nasty coincidence: you’re with a beautiful female with big brown eyes and you paw the ground and snort and wave your antlers and then you smell beer and see a fat man with a red cap pointing a stick at you and there is a burst of flame and she gallops away and he walks over and slits your throat. It’s tragic. There’s nothing I can do to prevent it. But we can defeat the next Trump by closing ranks behind Kamala now and stop the nit-picking. Shut up, fellow Democrats, and form straight lines.

A warm week in November: Thank you, Lord

It has been a quiet week in Minnesota but then it usually is so it comes as no surprise. The big news wasn’t the election but the week of balmy weather that followed. The election was simply a course correction. Your wife says, “You turned right, you were supposed to go straight” and the lady in the dashboard says, “When possible, make a legal U-turn,” and so you do.

I voted on Tuesday and then I got engrossed in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I bought months ago at a yard sale, one of twenty Franklin World Classics in leather-bound editions that I paid $15 for –– the whole pile, quite a bargain --- and I got engrossed in it for several days, and eventually I remembered the election and turned on the TV and evidently other people had voted for Biden too because there he was announcing his victory.

Joe Biden is my same age so that naturally makes me wonder about him. Seventy-eight is the age when you feel a strong urge to lie down and turn off the phone and put your favorite Emmylou Harris album on the turntable. But Joe didn’t look sleepy, he came jogging out to the lectern Saturday night in Wilmington and he gave a very amiable old-guy speech about our great country and healing and working together, and he didn’t refer to his opponent as Humpty Trumpty. He didn’t mention him at all.

It was the sort of hopeful speech you’d hear at commencement and it wasn’t terribly long. And it was preceded by Kamala Harris who, as the talking heads told us several times, is the First Woman VP and the First Woman of Color VP, and the First Child of Immigrants VP, a whole string of Firsts, but what really struck me is that she is the First Vice President With A Personality since 2016. She was delighted. She flashed a big grin. She showed a lot of spirit and her speech sounded like it might’ve been written by her and not a committee of Baptist coroners.

Neither she nor Joe complained about the incumbent as a “total loser” nor did they refer to their victory as “a historic landslide” (it wasn’t). It felt like a decent way to begin a new decade. Their families came out on stage at the end and you felt that probably they wouldn’t play a major role in the new administration. I don’t know if Joe owns a hotel chain but if he does, I assume he’ll divest himself of it and not travel around at government expense and stay in the Biden Caravelle or the Biden Majestic or the Biden Monte Carlo. I imagine we’ll get to see his income tax returns.

My evangelical relatives are in grief, of course, and I am sorry about that. They believe the 2016 election was an Act of God and even after his Bible photo op where he looked as if he’d never seen one before, they voted for the incumbent in obedience to God’s Will. By this same logic, if you contract colon cancer, don’t call the oncologist, simply light a candle and read a psalm.

They voted against socialism but we already have that in the form of Medicare and Social Security and free public education and public libraries. At least in Minnesota they are and so are our freeways.

My people are so discouraged by the advent of Biden-Harris, they believe the world is about to end and the Second Coming is at hand and they will soon be rapturized into heaven, which should make them happy but they don’t seem to be. The imminence of the Second Coming means that they can forget about lawn care, car payments, school assignments — just stay home and wait for the whisper of angels’ wings.

Meanwhile, I am happy that, as of January 20, a great calm will settle over Washington. We won’t see the name Biden in six front-page headlines every morning. Government, when you come right down to it, is fairly boring. It’s not a fireworks show, it’s people working in offices.

I don’t count on government to make my life worthwhile. I made a lucky marriage to a humorous woman who is never at a loss for words, I found work I enjoy, I look forward to April and another baseball season, and meanwhile I have the Franklin World Classics to occupy me over the winter. Twenty masterpieces for $15 is incredible. Capitalism would’ve charged me three or four hundred dollars. Dostoevsky for less than a dollar is communism, pure and simple. I am all for it.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, December 5, 2020

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Writing

The little guy in the shop around the corner

Amazon has hired a half-million new workers during the pandemic to bring its work force to 1.2 million, so I read in the New York Times, the newspaper that has elected Joe Biden president despite his losing Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, but on the odd chance they may be right, I am now going to walk a few blocks to Gold Leaf Stationers to buy my pens and paper rather than go online.

It’s a romantic notion, I know. Gold Leaf is a small store run by an Ethiopian immigrant, Fasil Yilma, and so there is a story behind it, whereas Jeff Bezos’s story is sort of beyond me. What do you do with your weekend when you’re worth $189 billion? Fasil works at his shop; that’s what he does. He carries the writing materials I need and he also will print stationery with my name across the top. In the age of texting and email, it’s a sweet gesture to write cursive with a pen on an 8-by-5 sheet with your name at the top. A graceful touch of the past, just as small shops are.

Read More

A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

Read More

Looking forward to Uncle Joe

A guy my age is going to be president in a few weeks, a cheerful guy, not a scowly one, and I think it’s going to be an instructive four years for the nation. Growing old is, along with marriage and religious faith and hiking the Grand Canyon, one of life’s fascinating experiences, one to look forward to. It is the reason your mother told you to look both ways before crossing the street and to chew your food thirty times before swallowing. It’s the reason I stopped smoking: after twenty years of cigarettes, you’ve pretty much exhausted the possibilities, time to move on. And now here I am, floating along at 78, an age at which the obituaries are becoming more and more interesting.

Read More

A warm week in November: Thank you, Lord

It has been a quiet week in Minnesota but then it usually is so it comes as no surprise. The big news wasn’t the election but the week of balmy weather that followed. The election was simply a course correction. Your wife says, “You turned right, you were supposed to go straight” and the lady in the dashboard says, “When possible, make a legal U-turn,” and so you do.

I voted on Tuesday and then I got engrossed in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I bought months ago at a yard sale, one of twenty Franklin World Classics in leather-bound editions that I paid $15 for –– the whole pile, quite a bargain — and I got engrossed in it for several days, and eventually I remembered the election and turned on the TV and evidently other people had voted for Biden too because there he was announcing his victory.

Read More

A call for reconciliation: It’s time

Some New York friends tried to shame me for rooting for the Dodgers last week on the grounds that I should uphold their grudge against the team for leaving Brooklyn in 1957 and moving to LA, which is ridiculous. I have my own grudges to maintain without taking on other people’s. They also shamed me on grounds that the Dodgers’ payroll is four times the Tampa Bay Rays’, a big rich team versus a young scrappy team, but I am not impressed. I used to have a grudge against prosperous writers until August 1969, when a magazine paid me $500 for a story at a time when my monthly rent was $80. I’ve been in favor of prosperity ever since.

Read More

A column that doesn’t mention his name? Yes, indeed.

New York is a city of fast women, as I know from my morning walk — one after another, they say, “On your left,” and they stride past, grandes dames and leggy lasses in a hurry to get somewhere, and meanwhile I shuffle along, a slow-moving obstruction, no schedule, nobody’s waiting in a coffee shop for me to come talk shop. This is the freest I’ve felt since I was a kid. I could hop on the A train and ride out to Far Rockaway and watch the Atlantic waves roll in on the shore and observe planes landing at JFK and I wouldn’t even need to invent a reason.

Instead I walk into Central Park and sit down on a bench by the dog run, an acre of grass where people let their dogs off the leash so they can tear around in a circle chasing each other (the dogs, that is), yapping and woofing happily. Apartment dogs enjoying a brief period of wildness as their owners stand in a group and converse. It’s a sociable scene, the dog run. Dogs in euphoria and people socializing who ordinarily would pass each other with eyes averted. An urban phenomenon.

Read More

What is normality and do we want it?

So here we are, locked down in our tiny village since March, winter on the way, chilly winds over the tundra, we’re waiting for men on a dogsled to bring the sacred COVID vaccine, meanwhile we hunker in our dark hut and while away the hours telling tales of old conquests. I try to while but whiling is not my strong suit and I’ve had no conquests, only a series of lucky breaks. I married well. I was born late enough so that medicine had figured out how to repair my congenital heart defect, which enabled me to enjoy the marriage a good deal longer. I took up writing as a profession, which is advantageous for a man with a long face and no social skills. I could list others.

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Enough of the news, onward with friendship

Someday we shall look back at these golden October days with wonder and amazement, how good life was even in a pandemic during a lunatic. Here in New York City, everyone wears a mask, there is a high level of civility, and though riding down Columbus Avenue feels like we’re driving across a freshly plowed field, life is good. I sat in a sidewalk café with a friend on Sunday, unmasked, telling old stories, enjoying freedom of speech. She complained about the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature: “I wrote poems like hers when I was in the ninth grade. ‘The leaves are turning brown, the leaves are falling, death is near.’ Who put the Swedes in charge of literature?”

Back in Minneapolis, where I’m from, you couldn’t say that. Too many Swedes around and too much PC and self- righteousness. Back there, among young lefties, I am a Privileged White Male, not a person but a type, but in my New York neighborhood, which tends Jewish, an old WASP is sort of a novelty. I walk around amid all colors and ethnicities and interesting accents and hairstyles, and I’m just a guy in jeans and a black T-shirt. This is a big relief. One big pleasure of urban life is looking at other people and it’s hard to do that if they are glaring at you as a symbol of all that is wrong. New Yorkers don’t.

Read More

A word from an old WASP, awaiting winter

The gorgeous October days go parading by and you know they will end and then there’s one more, warm and golden, the Van Gogh trees, the Renoir sky: it’s beautiful but I’m an old white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, the demographic responsible for the mess we’re in and all the messes before it. So I prefer to stay indoors. I wear a mask, the largest one I can find. Social distancing comes naturally to me — I’ve been emotionally distant since childhood. My parents weren’t huggers, they patted the dog and I guess we were supposed to extrapolate from that.

I’m 78. I’m heading into the Why Am I Here years, when you walk into a room and try to remember what you came for.

Read More

In a troubled time, it’s time to make a perfect day

It is a true accomplishment to give a perfect birthday to a beloved person and a whole gang of us managed to do this for my sweetie on Saturday, a day of perfection, beginning to end. She arose at 10 a.m. and went to bed at midnight and in those fourteen hours there were no harsh words, no snarls or snippy comments, no big spills, no spam messages, no knocks on the door by downstairs neighbors complaining about our shower leaking onto their bed. Instead there were phone calls from numerous people she loves, there were numerous small thoughtful gifts, there was a very long entertaining supper outdoors on a warm September evening with good food (but not too much) and lighthearted talk and some good stories and nothing about a possible constitutional crisis in November with the election being thrown aside by a 6-3 vote of the Supreme Court, none of that. She was happy the entire time.

Read More

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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